December 8, 2019

Thoughts on Atonement at the Age of 94

The author in Berlin; Photo by Hans-Dieter Rutsch

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been much of an atoner and now, at 94, it takes an effort to move fast enough to catch up with long-ago transgressions.

However, in the last two months an odd set of circumstances has led me to wrestle with questions of personal guilt and — for good measure — collective and historical guilt. This introspection was triggered by an invitation to visit Berlin, the city of my birth, extended by Dr. Benjamin Kuntz, a tall, handsome 34-year-old public health researcher at Germany’s prestigious Koch Institute.

In line with his professional interest and unbeknownst to me, Kuntz was writing a biography of my father, the noted German pediatrician Dr. Gustav Tugendreich. In groundbreaking research with Max Mosse more than a century ago — on the high mortality rate among German children between the ages of 2 and 6 — they showed how much depended on the social and economic level of the children’s parents, especially if the mother had to do menial work outside the home.

By happy coincidence, some 6,000 miles away in Los Angeles, I had rather reluctantly written a cover story about my deceased father for the 2006 Father’s Day issue of the Jewish Journal. Shortly after the article was published, it resurfaced in the quarterly German magazine Aktuell, published by the municipality of Berlin for former (mainly Jewish) residents, now scattered across the globe.

That’s how Kuntz learned of my existence and my father’s death in Los Angeles in 1948. The elapsed decades and the fact that I had changed my father’s unpronounceable last name to Tugend raised doubts in Kuntz’ mind whether he would find me alive and/or coherent, but he persisted.

An intensive email correspondence ensued, followed by the first of two visits to Los Angeles, and he reciprocated in July of this year by inviting me, together with my journalist daughter Alina Tugend, a frequent New York Times contributor, to visit Berlin.

In a jam-packed five-day schedule, we met with German intellectuals, civic officials, the favorite professional soccer team of my boyhood and a passel of journalists. Wherever we went, we were accompanied by a camera crew under the direction of documentary filmmaker Hans-Dieter Rutsch, whose plans include a documentary on the Tugend/Reich family.

I can forgive a nation that in general seeks atonement for the sins of the fathers, but it is perhaps harder to forgive my teenage self for what I did to my own father. 

One key event, and a trigger for our trip in the first place, was the laying of “Stolpersteine” — literally “stumbling stones,” but actually small brass-plated cubes of which some 70,000 now mark the front of homes left behind by the victims of Nazi terror throughout Europe. Most of the victims commemorated in what has been called the largest decentralized memorial in the world were Jews who died or were murdered in concentration camps. However, also included are those families, such as mine, who left Europe before the Holocaust hit full force. This massive undertaking is essentially the one-man effort of German artist Gunter Demnig, who designs the Stolpersteine and then personally plants them in front of the designated homes.

Around 100 people attended our ceremony in front of our old home at Reichstrasse 104, including Berlin’s deputy district mayor and the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport. The event concluded with the distribution of the first copies of my father’s biography, and while Kuntz was the author, a large contingent at the outdoor ceremony waved copies in front of me requesting autographs.

After the ceremony, the present owner of the second-floor apartment where we had lived invited us for a tour of the elegantly refurbished premises.

Given all that unaccustomed attention, I felt like the unlikely embodiment of Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future everyone would enjoy15 minutes of fame in his or her lifetime. Be that as it may, I (and I think Alina, too) was having a wonderful time. We were wined (or rather beered) and dined and kept meeting interesting people, who seemed genuinely interested in who we were and what we had to say.

Best of all, despite our differences in age and background, we were forging a genuine friendship with the ever-ebullient and thoughtful Bennie Kuntz. But given our tribe’s rich history of (justified) paranoia, I wondered if Bennie’s grandparents, or great-grandparents, had met me some 75 years ago, would they have shunned me, or worse? And would I, as an infantryman in the U.S. Army, have tried to kill his grandfather wearing a German uniform?

But if there is anyone to whom I owe atonement, it is my father, who served four years in the Kaiser’s army in World War I and in 1931 was publicly honored as one of the 100 leading German physicians of the preceding century. But then, in 1933, he was stripped of his honors and means of livelihood and forbidden to treat “Aryan” patients.

As a boy in Berlin and later in America, I sensed little of my father’s pain. Both my parents were non-observant Jews. My earliest holiday remembrance was of standing around the Christmas tree with the governess, nanny and cook singing carols. But there was one line my father would not cross. In 1911, he was offered the directorship of Germany’s royal institute for infant care, on the condition that he convert to Christianity. My father declined.

In 1937, my father immigrated to England — initially for one year, and then to the United States. He was safely abroad when the 1938 Kristallnacht led to the first mass incarceration of Jewish men in concentration camps. Yet his expulsion from the land of his ancestors and professional standing broke my father spiritually and physically. And that was largely the picture I retained of him from our reunion in America in 1939 — four months before the outbreak of World War II  — until his death in 1948.

Looking back on those years, while I was still in Berlin I was too preoccupied with the fortunes of my boyhood soccer career and those of my favorite professional team to notice my father’s misfortunes. This insensitivity became more pronounced when my mother, sister and I joined our father in America in 1939. My father’s heavy Teutonic accent embarrassed me, but one particular incident still haunts me.

One afternoon, I decided to balk at my assigned task of watering our small lawn, telling my father, “Why don’t you do it? You’re not doing anything, anyhow.” Thereupon something snapped in my characteristically quiet and restrained father, and even with a heart condition, he tried to chase and beat me in a violent rage. Realizing too late what I had done, I screamed, “No, you do a lot, you do a lot.” Of course, there is no way to remedy the hurt I had inflicted on my father, and my later realization that my action was that of a thoughtless teenager didn’t really change anything.

Toward the end of our Berlin trip, Alina and I met with Dr. Susan Neiman, who helped broaden our perspective from coping with personal guilt to collective guilt — with a twist a lot of Americans may not appreciate.

During the mid-1930s, I lived and studied for two years at the superb Jewish boarding school in Caputh, a Berlin suburb. I lived in the Einstein House, the former summer residence of the Albert Einstein, which he turned over to the boarding school when he moved to Princeton, N.J. His legacy is guarded and expanded by the Einstein Forum, which tackles some of the thorniest problems of our time under Neiman’s direction. The Atlanta native and moral philosopher is now a Berlin resident and has just come out with a new book sure to generate controversy. Titled “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,” the book asks whether Americans in general will assume responsibility for past national sins of decimating Indian tribes, enslaving African Americans and embarking on unnecessary wars, as the third generation of post-war Germans is assuming national responsibility for the Holocaust.

My Berlin trip ended with a paradox. I can forgive a nation that in general seeks atonement for the sins of the fathers, but it is perhaps harder to forgive my teenage self for what I did to my own father.